The arrival of M23 rebels in the eastern Congolese city of Goma on 20 November, has triggered widespread concern over the humanitarian ramifications in a region already beset by armed conflict, widespread displacement and attacks on civilians.
Fighting around the city led to the cancellation of a humanitarian assessment mission in North Kivu Province - of which Goma is the capital - scheduled for 19 November.
Rebel spokesman Vianney Kazarama broadcast a message to the city telling residents to carry on with their normal activities, saying M23 was there for their security. He provided his own phone number and that of two intelligence officers for citizens to call if they had any concerns.
Kazarama also called on government soldiers and police to assemble at a stadium on 21 November for an identification process.
Goma resident Jean Baptiste Musabyimana told IRIN that M23 appeared to be in control of Goma. “We can see the M23 patrolling the main road that runs through our neighbourhood,” he said.
Another resident, Florentin Baruti, told IRIN that in Bwirere District, where fighting took place on 20 November, most people were still indoors but that some young men were in the streets to see what was happening.
“It’s a relief that the fighting ended quite quickly,” said Baruti, “but we’re worried about the possibility of a counter-attack by the FARDC [government forces].”
One of the main concerns of humanitarian agencies in the region relates to the 60,000 residents of the Kanyarucinya camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to the north of Goma shortly before M23 reached the outskirts of the town. The camp is one of five dotted around Goma, which have a combined population of around 95,000.
“One problem is that many displaced families were split up on Monday [19 November] as they tried to get away from the fighting,” said Tarik Riebl, Oxfam’s coordinator in Goma. “When we talk to people they say they don’t know where some of their family members are.”
|We know from the recent practices of the groups involved in this latest fighting that unaccompanied children in this part of DRC are in immediate and real danger of forcible recruitment into armed groups|
He added: “For the moment food is one of the main needs, and another is non-food items, such as water containers and other household items, and shelter. There needs to be a distribution of these items."
Displaced children at risk
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) warned that displaced children now “face an increased risk of rape, abuse and recruitment.”
“What we are seeing now is that fighting between the rebel group and the army is displacing the displaced again, stretching the coping abilities of an already exhausted community,” Sebastian Albuja, the head of IDMC’s Africa department, said in a statement.
“Internally displaced children and specifically boys in North Kivu are at particular risk of being recruited by a variety of armed groups,” said Olivia Kalis, policy and advocacy adviseor for the NRC country office.
"IDPs are locking up or hiding their children, fearing attack and forced recruitment with girls and boys taken by armed actors,” she said.
Another NGO, World Vision, expressed similar concerns, putting the number of at-risk children in Goma alone at 200,000.
“Spontaneous camps for displaced families have been forming around Goma as communities flee to safety. Through its partners, World Vision is receiving reports that in the confusion, children are getting separated from parents - and the implications of this are devastating,” the agency said.
“We know from the recent practices of the groups involved in this latest fighting that unaccompanied children in this part of DRC are in immediate and real danger of forcible recruitment into armed groups,” said World Vision’s Dominic Keyzer, from the Rwandan border town of Gisenye.
Keyzer added that the violence had impeded humanitarian response and that World Vision has had to suspend some life-saving programmes in eastern DRC.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) said the government’s “capitulation to the M23 could send shockwaves throughout the Kivus and relaunch open warfare between the DRC and Rwanda” - which has been accused of backing the rebel movement, a charge it denies.
The ICG also warned that the fall of Goma might lead to the settling of scores “or even targeted extrajudicial executions against authorities and civil society activists who have taken a stance against the M23 since the beginning of the crisis".
The neighbouring province of South Kivu “is also affected by the deteriorating security situation which threatens thousands of civilians and has led to the suspension or reduction of humanitarian activities in the area", according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“South Kivu has been severely affected by repeated clashes between various armed groups and between armed groups and the Congolese army since mid-October. Several villages have been attacked over the last few weeks, triggering the flight of more than 30,000 people, while more than 300 houses have been destroyed or burned in these attacks. The current violence, primarily in the Kalehe and Shabunda territories, has reportedly killed more than 160 people in the past 10 days and led to serious human rights violations. Inter-communal tensions have compounded the situation,” OCHA said.
There are more than 1.6 million IDPs in the two Kivu provinces.